John Fogerty: Discovering It All Over Again

One syllable and you know it’s John Fogerty. His voice utters a note, a refrain and it comes out like lightning striking gravel. “Bad Moon Rising.” “Proud Mary.” “Fortunate Son.” These are just a sample of the songs that, thanks to Fogerty’s voice, have landed in the musical lexicon in the United States and abroad. These are the sinews and bones that make up a legendary body of work. And as it does for many legends before and since Fogerty, the magical journey of creation began even before he could speak—even before he was born in Berkeley, California, in 1945.

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“My mom used to tell me,” Fogerty tells American Songwriter, “that when she was pregnant with me, she went to a Beethoven concert and I started kicking up a storm.” 

When Fogerty’s mother would tell him that story as a teenager, he would slough it off, saying he was trying to “get the heck out of there” because of the classical music. But now, in hindsight at 77 years old, Fogerty says that he looks at it differently. That music—any music—was cause for commotion because he loved it so much. In fact, these days, hindsight is an important aspect of how Fogerty orients himself to the world. For years, there was a fair amount of drama associated with his relationship to his award-winning band, Creedence Clearwater Revival. Disputes with record execs, band members, even his older brother Tom and the group’s guitar player. But now, Fogerty has softened some. It’s the result of experience, perspective, and growth. But it all began for him when he was quite young. 

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“By the time I was 2 years old,” Fogerty says, “I would dance around, particularly in awkward places like church. In diapers, singing.”

In fact, it was then, he says, that he first started noticing people notice him. Of course, his mother and father were embarrassed to no end by their young son making a spectacle of himself. But young Fogerty saw the eyes on him, and they helped him light up. He got a toy snare drum for his fourth birthday, but he quickly (and by accident) broke the head, the drumstick flying through the thin paper. He had older brothers, too, so by the third grade, he was cognizant of what was on the radio and what was cool. The hit songs were R&B tunes. He’d walk to school at 8 years old imitating them, even inventing his own. He remembers hearing a commercial on the radio, asking its listeners if they had the “wash day blues.” And if they did, perhaps a certain detergent would help. So, he used that line—wash day blues—and grunted out a melody to the blues riff—da-duh-da-de-duh

“My friends called me ‘Foghorn,’” he says, due to the low growl of his tone even then. “I was trying to imitate the drums, bass, and guitar playing all at once. I didn’t know this then, though. But it was a sound I liked.” 

Fogerty remembers other early formative moments. Like when he was a little more than 3 years old and his mother gave him a kids record with the songs “Oh! Susanna” and “Camptown Races” on it. They were by Stephen Foster, his mother told him, a songwriter. Today, Foster is frequently referred to as the “father of American music.” He was one of the first—if not the first—to go out and try to make a living as a professional songwriter. Learning this, Fogerty was enthralled. Even then, he cared about composers. Then, Fogerty discovered Elvis Presley. 

“I was absolutely fascinated with him,” Fogerty says. 

He recalls a small store he ventured into while on vacation with his parents in Winters, California, a little country town, when he was about 11. The jukebox came on and his eyes got huge. He asked, “What’s that?” It was Elvis. Specifically, it was “My Baby Left Me,” which was originally released by Presley in 1956. He loved the guitar playing in the single. It was so prominent and gripping. The act of discovery took hold of him. He’d heard one, maybe two, Elvis songs at that point. There was no internet, of course, and there weren’t record shops all over the place. Plus, he was young. So, to discover such an important artifact of culture was astounding.

“I was riveted,” he says. “Now that I look back on it, it was a landmark on the road for me.”

The formation of Creedence Clearwater Revival happened not in one fell swoop, but more in fits and starts. But it kicked off with a school piano. In eighth grade, Fogerty would head to his junior high school’s music room after school just to play. Conveniently, the room was located in a high-traffic area near the gym, where people would be coming and going on their way to activities after the school day.

“Location, location, location,” Fogerty says with a chuckle. 

People would gather there, listening to him sing. He says he was an especially shy person at the time but the gathering crowd must have caused him to go “into another personality” such that he must have “hypnotized” himself or “hid” himself as he played. He notes that he “wasn’t real great” at the time, but it was a beginning, albeit perhaps a touch sloppy one. Nevertheless, he could play a 12-bar blues and a few singles that were on the radio, including a boogie-woogie tune. That’s when a young Doug Clifford showed up. Clifford told Fogerty he could play drums, and the two later met at Clifford’s home where Fogerty discovered Clifford had a drum and a cymbal. On subsequent occasions, they went to Fogerty’s house where he had a guitar and an amp he’d gotten off layaway from Sears for $88 (co-signed by Fogerty’s mother). It took him 10 months to pay for it in full. Later on, a young Stu Cook came by the school music room and heard Fogerty play. These would be future CCR members. Things were slowly coming together. 

John Fogerty (Photo by Myriam Santos)

“He was already a friend of Doug’s,” Fogerty says of Cook. “So, we made arrangements to meet at Stu’s house. He lived closer to school than I or Doug did. And he had a piano.” 

Fogerty named the band The Blue Velvets. Things were getting off the ground just as the ’50s were ending and the ’60s were beginning. They continued to meet after school, even after Fogerty transferred schools. Occasionally, his brother Tom, his elder by four years, would play, too. More often, though, as a trio, the fellas would play sock hops around town. On the occasions when Tom would sing with them, they’d be billed as Tom Fogerty and the Blue Velvets. 

Fogerty graduated high school in June 1963. Months later, The Beatles made their now-famed appearance on television. Fogerty started playing with some other musicians, traveling up to Portland, Oregon, to jam sometimes. Then he came back to Berkeley and would perform at The Monkey Inn with various players, including Clifford. Tom came back around. In 1966, Cook came back, too, visiting from San Jose State, where he was attending college. The boys encouraged Cook to get a bass, which he did. Suddenly, inspired by Buddy Holly and the Crickets, they had a four-piece band. But there was a pause in the musical action when Fogerty was drafted. 

“I had by then been drafted and had joined the Army reserve,” he says. “Everything changed in January of ’67 because I got my notice to show up for active duty.”

During that era of service, Fogerty and his brother Tom were writing letters back and forth, talking about their musical project and how to direct it once Fogerty got out of his responsibilities in the armed forces. So, when he got out, they were all on the same page. The result, of course, was history-making. Creedence Clearwater Revival released its self-titled LP in 1968 and followed that up with three records in 1969—Bayou Country, Green River, and Willy and the Poor Boys. Then two more in 1970—Cosmo’s Factory and Pendulum. Indelible, lasting singles flew out into the world left and right. An appearance at Woodstock occurred in 1969, too. 

But in 1972, four years after their debut album, the group broke up. If it had been a marriage, they would have cited “irreconcilable differences.” Fogerty harbored anger for the record company, fighting with them about direction. He got into arguments with his bandmates, including his brother, with whom he didn’t speak for years. He went solo, releasing several albums. Tom later died in 1990 from AIDS after a blood transfusion infected him with the deadly virus. 

As with all lives, especially those rich with experience, Fogerty feels some regret with those days now. The advantage of experience allows him new perspectives.

“That was a very hard time for me,” Fogerty says. “Put it this way: I’m not in that mindset now. I’m a very happy person. There’s almost somewhat of a distance, in a way.”

He talks about seeing old clips of himself, even as recently in the 1990s or 2000s, where he’s complaining about something. His wife was in the room at one particular moment as he was looking back at the videos from decades ago. And he told her how he regrets his tone, words, and anger. His wife asked him why, since those things “really happened.” She was trying to tell him it was OK that they happened; they were honest reactions to difficult times. And while Fogerty is glad, in a way, that his honest feelings are out in the world, he also feels silly at times at how ardently he expressed them. He’s no longer angry, though. Evidence of this is the band’s late 2022 release of an album and documentary born from a 1970 performance at London’s Royal Albert Hall. There’s a lot of water under the proverbial bridge. 

“In some ways,” he says, “it’s embarrassing to me that there are videos of me cranking on about this or that event. In the long distance of it, in some ways I’m ashamed. But in other ways, I’m glad it’s on record.” 

But even more importantly, Fogerty’s songs are on record. He has an intimate relationship with the tunes he wrote. He worked on them concertedly in the moment and has deep feelings for them. But beyond his sentiment, his skill shows. His voice is one of the best in rock music history, snarling and rumbling, beautiful and perfect. Even these days, he’s still putting out work, like the pointed and politically minded 2021 single, “Weeping in the Promised Land.” He also recently performed a Tiny Desk Concert for NPR, surrounded by his family members backing him on guitars. Fogerty has always spoken his mind when it comes to the political landscape in the United States, particularly when it comes to the underdog, the downtrodden. And that continues today. 

“I’m very happy with how that song turned out,” he says of “Weeping in the Promised Land.” “It was one of the hardest songs I ever wrote. I really labored over the craft of it.”

[RELATED: Behind The Song: “Centerfield” by John Fogerty]

Fogerty had the title written in his songbook for some three decades, unsure what exactly to do with it. Then George Floyd was murdered by police. The COVID-19 pandemic took on full force. The Black Lives Matter movement erupted. Protests occurred all over the world. People were angry at what the political landscape had become. 

“I think for the first time,” Fogerty says, “many white people could actually feel like what Black people felt for hundreds of years. It became not only in the headlines, it became emotionally in the front of our consciousness. I think a large portion of white America could suddenly feel like what it might feel like to be downtrodden and ignored and pissed upon and rebuked and dealt with in such disparaging ways.” 

As he watched this, Fogerty knew he had a choice. With the title of a song in hand, he could act on it and write it, or he could ignore the impulse, saying it was too hard and let it go. He chose the former. He was aided by the sight of his daughter, who took up the mantle and protested injustices she perceived, too. She had just graduated from high school and, one day, he watched as she left to head to the center of Los Angeles to speak her mind and gather with those doing the same. Fogerty himself could have copped out, he says, but instead hunkered down and worked on the song. Today, the track boasts nearly 1 million views on YouTube alone. 

For Fogerty, music is a gift. Mostly because of how it makes him feel. But beyond that, music offers a window. Something, when the conditions are right, that he can traverse through, lose himself, and come out the other side with, hopefully, a song to show for it. His sense of discovery is still important to him. Just like while in the womb hearing Beethoven, in the small store hearing Elvis, and as a kid jamming with his friends who would later form one of the best bands in American history. He likens it, oddly enough, to falling asleep. We can’t track the moment we nod off, but it’s there. And when we do, we’re in a new zone, swimming in our dreams.

“The sense,” Fogerty says, “that something I don’t know right now might happen one second or one minute from now. I’ve been through that many times in my life.” 

Photo by Myriam Santos

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